The Conscience of a Country

(Photo: Jessie Owen/Flickr)

In December 2019, the news media published the story of a 16 year-old boy who died last May in US immigration custody. Surveillance video showed Customs and Border Protection officials lying about the cause of this boy’s death. Not only was he jailed beyond the legal time limit, he apparently did not receive care once he contracted the flu. He died in his cell of pneumonia and sepsis. This boy is not the first child to have died in US immigration custody, and to our shame, he probably won’t be the last. Border patrol officials had apparently ignored a Centers for Disease Control recommendation to give flu shots to detainees, even refusing an offer from volunteer physicians to vaccinate at no charge. This kind of depraved indifference to human life demonstrates that the current administration’s immigration policies are not about “securing our borders” or ensuring that criminals do not enter the US. In 2014 during a speech at a Conservative Political Action Conference, Donald Trump urged Republicans not to pass immigration reform, saying that immigrants would vote for Democrats and steal jobs from Americans. The first concern is far more likely to be true, given Trump’s current policies, than the latter. When politics result in life/death situations, something is terribly wrong. 

I have been puzzled by the contention and confusion that surround the immigration “debate” in the US, as I mentioned in my article “Immigration Obfuscation” published in the Armenian Weekly in October. December 10 was Human Rights Day, which reminded us once again that all humans deserve humane treatment, including those fleeing violence and misery in their home countries. Those governing current US immigration policies seemingly do not share these sentiments, which in a nation populated by people from all over the globe, is puzzling at best, infuriating when it results in the death of a child. Laws that govern immigration are created by Congress and, if approved, signed by the president. Yet today we face a host of presidential executive actions that have bypassed Congress and cut off the route to asylum for many and caused much misery for many more. Our current debate concerns what our immigration laws should look like, that is, who should gain legal entry. 

This issue leads us to ask important questions such as the following: what is our responsibility to protect those under imminent threat of torture and death in their own countries while seeking asylum in ours? Do we have an obligation to help those most in need if we can? This issue is singularly significant in the US, especially to Armenians, given what brought our families here a century ago. In the past when most Americans hailed from northern Europe [setting aside for now the massive problems of slavery and the subjugation of Native Americans] the discriminatory responses to the Irish and other “less desirable” immigrants were palpable and consequential, but ultimately muted over time by the fact of their northern European “whiteness.” But that capacity for discrimination and prejudice simply headed south after World War I; southern Europeans were not welcome in the US, resulting in quota systems that effectively prevented such populations from emigrating to our shores. Over time the US figured out that it had an obligation to offer hope to the desperate, as demonstrated by the displaced persons our country took in after World War II. In the 1980s and 90s, immigration at our southern border grew. However, the inhumane policies of the Trump presidency have, in some ways, turned the clock back nearly a century, as our current refugee crisis demonstrates. 

Why does the issue of immigration appear to rile so many people? According to the American Immigration Council, immigrants are less likely to commit serious crimes than citizens (excluding the “crime” of illegal entry), are eager for an education (indeed 46 percent of immigrants have some college education, and 22 percent of dental, nursing and health aides are immigrants) [Economic Policy Institute], and “more than 20 percent of new and established business owners in the US were immigrants in 2014, far above the immigrant community’s 13.2 percent of the US population,” according to the Immigration Forum. What then causes the current antipathy toward immigrants among some? Clearly no country wants to admit those who might disregard its laws, soak up resources, and not contribute to economic prosperity, or work to dismantle our way of life. But we have no evidence that any ethnic group admitted to the US has acted in such destructive ways, individuals perhaps, but not entire groups. So why the discrimination?  

This issue is personal for me, as I expect it is for many Armenians who are only alive today because their forebears managed to escape genocide and find a way to emigrate to the US. Some Armenians attempting to escape virtually certain death in Turkey at the beginning of the last century by coming to the US faced similar discrimination when they arrived. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was a hurdle for Armenians since the US government wanted to consider Armenians as oriental, not white. In 1909 four Armenian men had to go to a Boston court and plead against the federal government’s contention that they were “oriental” in order to be granted entry to the US. A US Circuit Court judge subsequently ruled that western Asiatics had become so mixed with Europeans that it was impossible to determine if they were white or part of the “yellow” race. These men were admitted, but the case did not provide a firm legal footing for Armenians since the judge ruled that they “looked” European, not that they were. Not surprisingly the government challenged this ruling in Oregon in 1923 insisting that Tatos Cartozian was not a “free white person” as required by the Naturalization Act of 1790. Cartozian presented himself in court for the judge to determine his “whiteness” from his skin color, but that was not enough for the government. Ultimately, he “proved” his whiteness with testimony by anthropologist Hans Boaz who said, “It would be utterly impossible to classify (Armenians) as not belonging to the white race.” In 1924 Armenians were judged “white,” but this did not make immigration easier because of the quota systems established in the Immigration Laws of 1921 and 1924 that discriminated against “southern Europeans” who now were considered white, but apparently not white enough.

This problem had been amplified during the genocide when the US government chose not to protect Armenians from Turkish oppression. Non-governmental agencies such as Near East Relief attempted to provide aid, but after World War I it was clear that no mandate for Armenia would be forthcoming, nor would Armenian refugees be uniformly welcome in the US. The intent of the tight immigration quotas set by the immigration laws of 1921 and 1924 was clearly to restrict immigration from “less desirable” races and ethnicities. And restrict it did: 17 Armenians who came to the US after the genocide were sent back to Turkey to their deaths because they were “over the quota.” This same shameful tragedy was perpetrated against an equally unwelcome population in 1939. A ship carrying 937 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution was turned away from Cuba and sent back to Europe for want of a country willing to take them in. Both the US and Canada rejected most of these refugees. Only 28 immigrants were allowed to remain. Jewish organizations were able to secure visas in several countries in Europe, but 254 ultimately died at the hands of the Nazis.

The devastation at Smyrna in 1922 is a prime example of the dangers that the convergence of racism, politics and greed can present, a pernicious stew that continues to influence our relationship with Turkey today. American policy at the time was to avoid “interfering” in the internal affairs of Turkey. This policy of neutrality toward Turkey resulted in the American Navy in Smyrna failing initially to save desperate refugees caught between the fires on the quay and drowning in the ocean. American neutrality meant that only those with American ties were officially allowed on American ships, and terrified refugees seeking safety were left to their grim fate. British and French ships operated in similar ways for a period of time, allowing on board only those with ties to their countries. It was primarily through the heroic activities of American educators who operated schools in the region, religious personnel such as Reverend Asa Jennings, and American naval officer Halsey Powell whose humanity would not allow him to carry out his orders and ignore the carnage in front of him that some Armenian refugees were saved. By the time other ships allowed refugees on board, many victims had already perished. 

 In my hometown of Syracuse, New York two young women who became our family friends, Elise Hagopian Taft and Takouhie Dabanian Kalebjian, were desperate to find a ship to save them from the fires on the quay. Their family members had been murdered, leaving these two girls alone in the “mile-wide conflagration” as Elise put it in her memoir Rebirth. “The roaring chaos, the stench of burning flesh haunt me to this day,” she wrote. Elise had found her way to the American School for Girls, and therefore was under the protection of American citizens, which ultimately saved her. Takouhie, a blue-eyed blonde who spoke excellent French, was able to pass herself off as a “Dabanoff,” clearly not an Armenian name, and was granted a “laissez-passez” to the French battleship Jean Bart. These two were among the few lucky ones to survive. Many men, women and children died on the shores of Smyrna while Allied naval personnel watched from their ships with their military bands playing to drown out the screams of the victims. 

How could such cruelty happen? Admiral Mark Bristol, the commander of the US Naval Detachment in Turkish water and the American High Commissioner for Turkey in 1922, had given the order that the Navy was not to rescue any Armenians other than those under American protection. The US Navy was to maintain neutrality. Why? Greed and racism. It is hard to tell which came first. Suffice to say, both were starkly in evidence. First the greed: The US had long been eyeing Turkey as a financial partner. Politicians and government officials at the time like Rear Admiral Colby M. Chester had developed a private plan for the US (and for him and his family, who were to profit handsomely) to become business partners with the Turks in order to access oil, minerals, railroads and to make other financially lucrative deals to exploit the Middle East. Ultimately, these financial plans were unsuccessful as the Turks chose to partner with the Germans instead of the US. 

 Now for the racism: The US Senate did not vote to support a mandate for Armenia in spite of the King-Crane Commission’s documentation with arguments very similar to those presented to support the creation of Israel after World War II. One senator who voted against the mandate blamed the victim by stating that no American male would have allowed anyone to kill his family, showing both the kind of contempt that some politicians had for the Armenians for being “the losers” and the total lack of awareness of what actually happened. Chester and Bristol had no interest in or sympathy for the Armenians. Admiral Bristol was known for his anti-Armenian sentiments. He once wrote, “The Armenians are a race that deserve small consideration … like the Jews; they have little or no national spirit and have poor moral character,” (as quoted in The Smyrna Affair by Marjorie Housepian Dobkin, p. 61). Bristol’s colleague British officer Lieutenant A.S. Merrill told him, “The refugees are in a blue funk. No one could imagine without seeing them ‘under fire’ what a chicken-livered lot the Christian minorities are” (Ibid. 121). Bristol, on the other hand, had a favorable view of the Turks: “… the Turk has some individual traits of character that are so far superior to those of other races that one is led to sympathize with the Turk even though you never forget the bad traits of his character that are illustrated by the acts committed against subjugated races” (Ibid. 61). Were these views simply justification for the US failure to act while entire families were burned to death, bayoneted or drowned in the harbor, or did they really believe these families did not deserve to live? While it is important to understand the causes of prejudice, more significant is what we choose to do about it. In this case US government policy toward Turkey has changed little in the last 100 years, as evidenced by the Senate’s refusal to vote on the recent Armenian Genocide resolution after Trump’s appeal to Mitch McConnell to “fix” this problem. 

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Turkey’s efforts to rid itself of its minorities, following Zia Gokalp’s infamous “Turkey for the Turks,” the dictum the Turks used to subjugate and destroy non-Turks living in Turkey, was seen by some European countries as simply a manifestation of the nationalism that was embraced in parts of Europe. In addition, Armenians had already become targets for racist contempt. Matthias Bjornlund in his essay published in the Armenian Weekly Magazine in April 2015 stated that “examples of Western intellectual Armenophobia are legion” and phrases like “more greedy, cunning, and ruthless than Greeks and Jews” are common. The Turks, on the other hand, were described as “honest” and “easygoing,” as Bjornlund stated in his book The Great Game of Genocide. Is it any wonder that Armenians had few protectors and allies from among western governments? It was non-governmental agencies, particularly those supported by religious organizations, that took it upon themselves to provide aid. 

It is important for immigration critics to know that Armenians in the US, especially during the post-World War I period, experienced prejudice similar to what some Muslims and Hispanics face today. My grandparents were living in the US in 1921, and my grandmother Eliza Der Melkonian Sachaklian was not shy about telling stories of anti-immigrant prejudice during this period. One example—she was walking on a downtown Syracuse street shopping with her children when a tall Anglo-looking woman bumped into her. The stranger looked down with contempt and spit out, “Damn foreigners.” My grandmother, never one to be bullied, looked up and said, “I bet I’m smarter than you!” Years later on a trolley with her husband and babies, a “Yankee” lady stared coldly at them and remarked to her female companion, “Italians!” Eliza turned to her husband and with a haughty gesture toward the women sneered loudly, “Irish!” 

Today, racism is governmentally sanctioned. President Trump has called immigrants from Mexico rapists and criminals. Candidate Trump called for a ban on all Muslims coming into the US. As president, he said there are “some very fine people” among white supremacists. He said that all those from Haiti have AIDS. He referred to countries such as Haiti and African countries as “s-hole countries.” It isn’t news that some people feel this way. Racism has been with us since the beginning—only whites could become citizens of the US, as stated in a 1790 law (not the Constitution). Today Trump as president has legitimized racism, attempting to block the progress we have made. The important question is, what are we going to do about it? How will we regain a conscience?

Concepts of race are, of course, malleable. In 1922 Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Italians and others from southern Europe and the Middle East were seen as not fully “white.” Over time, prejudice has shifted to those from Africa and Latin America, although Jews and Muslims, among others, continue to be targets of prejudice. That Trump managed to tap into this nascent prejudice as a strategic method of strengthening his base is a scary fact. A January 2017 study showed that support for Trump was more correlated to voters’ measures of sexism and racism than economic factors (see Schaffner, MacWilliams and Nteta). A study conducted in 2016 found that when those who strongly identified as white were told that non-whites will outnumber them by 2042, they were more likely to support Trump (see Major, Blodorn and Major-Blascovich).

It is easy to couch inhumane policies in bureaucratic language, for example: “Everyone most enter the country legally,” when it is clear virtually all legal entry doors are locked. This response turns a blind eye to those who seek asylum because of dangerous living conditions in their home countries. The US encouraged relatively free immigration (among “whites”) until the end of the 19th century when laws explicitly restricting Asian immigration were passed. One could postulate that as long as immigrants were from European countries, we did not need firm immigration laws, but once less “desirable” people wanted entry we needed quotas. Nor is it an accident that the immigration debate has reignited during a time when Hispanic immigrants attempting to escape dangerous conditions in their home countries are coming to our borders. Trump has said he would welcome more immigrants from Norway, but those from south of our border, not so much. 

discrimination and prejudice are not our national policy

Closer to home for the Armenians are the recent events in Syria, which might be seen as peripheral to the immigration debate but are actually at the heart of it. Anyone who questions whether a Trump presidency is dangerous for Armenians and other at-risk populations should have no doubt after seeing a recent headline in the Armenian Weekly: “Armenian Catholic Priest Killed in Syria, Armenian Community Targeted.” Syria is populated with Armenians, some of whom are descendants of those who managed to survive the marches to the deserts in the area of Deir ez-Zor. That they are now being attacked as a result of US policy instead of benefiting from our protection is a shameful horror. The Trump administration has shown no interest in helping these and other vulnerable populations. Instead Trump pulled troops out of Syria, leaving our key allies—the Kurds—to deal with ISIS and the Turks on their own. Of course, the Turks rapidly invaded northeastern Syria, resulting in, according to Amnesty International, war crimes committed on a population whose great-grandparents had survived the death marches nearly a century earlier. Trump only appears to be interested in currying favor with “strong men” (read dictators) such as Erdogan, a leader who has shown utter contempt for democratic values and human decency. Indeed, at Trump’s request Mitch McConnell made sure that the Armenian Genocide Resolution failed in the Senate. If we had any doubts about Trump’s values before the Syrian debacle, now we should have none.

Certainly, discrimination and prejudice are not our national policy, despite Trump’s efforts to turn back the clock to early 20th century racist attitudes by executive order. Indeed, many Americans think about immigrants as prospective neighbors, friends and “productive employees and responsible citizens.” This quotation comes from the Republican governor of Utah, Gary R. Herbert who sees refugees as an asset to his state. This fall Trump signed an executive order that gives states and cities the right to veto refugee resettlements. Refugee advocates at first were alarmed that prejudice and fear would result in a ban on new immigrants. But Utah and other states such as Colorado and North Dakota wanted the US government to send them more. As Herbert said, “We empathize deeply with individuals and groups who have been forced from their homes and we love giving them a new home and a new life” (Griff White, Washington Post, December 3, 2019). Republicans and Democrats in Utah’s state government and in the state’s congressional delegation supported this effort. Utah’s Republican Speaker of the House Brad Wilson, said, “I have to be honest: I don’t have any idea why it’s a partisan issue nationally. It’s never been one here. Regardless of political party, we value these people.” 

Why has the US not offered visas to the Armenians and others struggling to survive in Syria?  Indeed, why in 2017 did the US bar all Syrians, including Armenians, from getting US visas? Other countries have also suffered from US bans, for example, Somalia. A 50 year-old refugee from Somalia, now living in Utah, said her son had been vetted to join her in 2016, but Trump’s travel ban on Somalians as well as natives from six other countries means that she has not seen her 16 year-old son since she left, and she has no idea when or if she will see him again.

At the end of World War II and into the 1950s, displaced Armenians were desperate to come to the US—and come they did, when they could find sponsors. My grandparents, among many other Armenian households, hosted displaced Armenian families in their home until housing became available. One family who moved in with my grandparents had four children. My grandmother cooked for them, cleaned, took the oldest daughter downtown to buy her shoes, and when they finally found their own home, she helped them settle into their new dwelling. US immigration policy allowed these refugees in at that time. Today the US has shut its doors to Syrian Armenians, those whose great grandparents survived the forced march to Der Zor, along with other nationalities simply trying to survive.

I am not arguing that we should have an open-door immigration policy, nor am I arguing that we allow illegal immigration. I am arguing, even imploring, that national immigration policy should provide an avenue for entry to our shores that acknowledges the existential crises that too many innocent families face in areas where war, crime and chaos threaten survival. After all, most of America was populated by just such people—“your tired, your poor…the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” Armenians and others who suffered oppression must act as the conscience of our country when it loses its way. If we who suffered such tragedies cannot offer empathy, who can?

Editor’s Note: Following the publication of Dr. MacCurdy’s commentary, the United States Senate, by unanimous consent, passed the Armenian Genocide Resolution (S.Res.150).

Marian Mesrobian MacCurdy

Marian Mesrobian MacCurdy

Dr. Marian Mesrobian MacCurdy is a retired professor and chair of the Department of Writing at Ithaca College. She is currently a visiting English professor at UMass Amherst and a recent fellow at the University of Massachusetts Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies. She earned her Ph.D. in Humanities from Syracuse University and studied under Jacqueline Rose in Cornell’s School for Criticism and Theory. She has published scholarly articles as well as personal essays and poetry in such journals as Raft, edited by Vahe Oshagan, the Journal of Poetry Therapy, and Ararat, edited by her mentor Leo Hamalian. She has published scholarly articles, personal essays, poetry and three books: Writing and Healing: Toward an Informed Practice, co-edited with Charles Anderson, The Mind’s Eye: Image and Memory in Writing About Trauma, and Sacred Justice: The Voices and Legacy of the Armenian Operation Nemesis. She has given many talks on Operation Nemesis and inter-generational trauma for Armenian communities and colleges and universities.
Marian Mesrobian MacCurdy

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  1. I had a already typed a comment, but apparently I must do so again. I am so sorry that the person who wrote the article is angry with President Trump, while not mentioning obama, who brought tens of thousands of moslems to this country, while bringing about a dozen Christian, whom, I am told, were later deported. Since you are so concerned about moslems, why not move to Turkey, since there are many moslems there. I’m sure they are much nicer than the mean President Trump, and, if you stay there awhile, you might even find a few people who are Armenian descendants but most of them, at least in eastern Turkey, will never admit it, since the kind moslems you are so worried about would probably discriminate against them in ways which would make the complaints you have against some Americans seem benign by comparison. This seems to be a complaint about President Trump. Did you forget that obama also tried to avoid the Armenian Genocide issue, by usually hiding out in obscure places at the April anniversity of the Genocide.

  2. Two quotes:
    1- “All humans deserve humane treatment including those fleeing violence and misery in their home countries”.
    2- ” To protect these under imminent threat of torture and death in their own countries”.
    Nobody, no decent person can disagree with these two statements. In total agreement.
    The issue and the problem becomes more complicated when thousands upon thousands (organized caravans) attempt to gain illegal entry to US, not because of the reasons/conditions cited above, but simply for economic reasons.
    It is a sad reality, that the US today for security reasons and the safety of its citizens cannot afford to have open borders. There are no easy solutions with the right humane balance. It is a “thorny” issue . Immigration/refugee laws have to be clear, applied to all, and enforced.

    Vart Adjemian

  3. Professor Emerita MacCurdy failed to hit the ball out of the park in October, so she takes 3,667 more words to swat at the ball, with the same result.

    Prof., I get it, we all get it – you don’t like Trump, despise him in fact, and believe you have good reason. OK, reasonable people can differ on these issues. My real beef is why the AW is becoming the place for your or my expressions about Trump’s immigration policies.
    I would like, at the very least, to hear another opinionated person defend Trump on the issues you raise.

    I don’t need woke AW. I do need articles about Armenia, Armenian history and culture, and our future.

    By the way, no law enforcement agency will allow a bunch of private MDs to start injecting people in custody. That has to be done through channels. I agree that it’s a good idea. I don’t agree with the inference you draw, namely that Trump is withholding flu vaccinations because he is a racist. Maybe he is a racist, but you prove too much – Obama also held kids for a brief time, and did not vaccinate. And we ALL AGREE Obama was not a racist, amiright?

    I raised this before and I raise it now: how can you equate the lawful entry of a limited number of our ancestors fleeing Genocide to the 45,000 people entering monthly now for reasons that are largely insufficient and factually false?

    For that matter, why should Armenians be less in favor of enforcing the law than Mayflower Americans? By the way, Yankees gave my mom and grandparents a hard time too – does that mean all people huddling at the southern border are to be let in today?

    • Agree with you, too, jda. Keep the logic coming. This reminds me of the fabled person who does not make a dent in persuading others and so decides they must be deaf and says the same thing over again, only louder.

  4. Are you back at this again? Stop pushing your leftist progressive agenda. Racism has been around for a long time and I doubt it’ll go away completely in the next 1, 000 years. Trump is not the problem for everything in this world. Much of what he says I and many others are in agreement with — perhaps racism is part of human nature. We are Armenians, don’t we feel we’re better than the Turks? I guess that makes us racist.
    Trump is not the only president to try to squash recognition of the Armenian Genocide. What about Obama, Bush, Clinton? Or are you only fixated on Trump? Why haven’t the leftists tried to fix our Immigration policies? How about complaining about them.
    You claim coming here legally is exceedingly difficult — how about 1 million people per year? Get your facts straight!

  5. Immigrants are welcome to this country.
    We admit about a million a year.

    But they must apply –legally–.

    Dr. MacCurdy does not seem to realize this.

    Drugs, sex traffickers, and criminals come across our borders illegally.
    Trump is trying to stop that. That’s all. I don’t see what’s wrong with that.

    As for how illegal immigrants are treated: I believe that the vast majority are treated rather well here.

  6. Dear Dr. MacCurdy:

    Please read that article about the horrible Hispanic gang known as “MS-13,” 100 of whose members were just arrested.

    Tell us how you think they got into the country in the first place.

    Why do so many progressives say nothing about this? Because they feel insulated from it?

    Who is housing these gang members? Who are their associates? How do they all make money? Who are their victims? Are their victims other Hispanics?

    Should we feel compassion for MS-13?

  7. The middle class is in such dire straits that we can’t allow illegal immigrants to come into this country and receive jobs and benefits. It’s too much of a strain on the middle class – that has to stop. Put harsh penalties on those who try to hire illegals – no need for a silly wall. There has to be a new system of vetting everyone who comes into the country – it should be based on whether the person is fleeing a life threatening situation in their home country, personal status, it should have nothing to do with race,

  8. Dear Dr. MacCurdy, Thank you for your eloquent and thoughtful piece. One hundred years ago this January, my grandfather’s life was turned upside down when his mother and sisters were massacred by the Turks as the French withdrew from Marash. He was one of the lucky ones who made it to America, because this country gave 80,000 Armenian genocide survivors a chance. Despite the prejudice and indignities they faced from Americans as they tried to rebuild their lives here, our poor Armenian refugee grandparents made innumerable contributions to this country that continue to enrich us all. My grandfather became a prominent dentist in NYC and an upstanding leader in his community, serving as a member of our church’s building committee and a 32nd-degree Mason and Shriner. I cannot imagine where our family would be if he was that same 15-year-old boy, with nothing to his name, trying to enter America today. I don’t have to imagine, because the answer is simple: we would not exist. Thank you for speaking up about the tragic death of that 16-year-old boy in immigration custody and the plight of today’s refugees. I hope your words motivate more Armenians to pay it forward.

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